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Brave parents Philip and Shiva took their carefree toddler on an Icelandic adventure : credit: © Shiva Riahi
Does having a toddler clip your overlanding wings? Not for first-time adventurers Philip and Shiva, who headed across Iceland in their Defender with a little one on board

We bought our 2011 Defender 110 TDCi – christened Wallie – in the summer of 2022, lured by its promise of adventure and a rediscovery of the great outdoors.

It was not a rash purchase, especially given the eye-watering prices of Defenders in recent times, but a deliberate lifestyle change. We simply felt that there was a more fulfilling way to experience the world around us – and that the answer, at least in part, lay in a Land Rover. However, we would not be undertaking these adventures alone: the intention always was to drag our rambunctious little boy, Kai, along for the ride as we fulfilled this newfound desire to explore and experience life off the beaten track.

Defender 110 TDCi is affectionately nicknamed Wallie

Keen to crack on, a quick online search of ‘off-road holidays with a toddler’ brought us to OneLife Adventure, run by Paul and Anne Blackburn. They organise serious overlanding trips all over Europe and Africa, but were incredibly supportive of us bringing Kai. So, before we talked ourselves out of it, we booked a two-and-a-half week overlanding and wild camping expedition with them to Iceland.

Despite our initial gung-ho enthusiasm, it didn’t take long for doubts to set in. As a couple with regular desk jobs, our previous experience was limited to relatively short greenlaning trips, and we had never even been camping with Kai, let alone taking him on a full-blown overseas trip. When we mentioned our holiday plans to others, all but a precious few reacted with horror at the prospect of camping with a toddler, much less overlanding in Iceland. We couldn’t help but ask ourselves if they were right: faced with the reality of undertaking such a trip with a hyperactive toddler, perhaps it was just better to use our baby as an excuse and stay at home, or at least go where other families with young kids holiday, rather than roaming further.

Looking back, what a relief that we didn’t cave in. There would have been no adventure of a lifetime nor the irreplaceable memories of doing this incredible trip with Kai – just an overly-polished Defender called Wallie gradually gathering dust on a driveway in Surrey.

 

Land Rovers – they’re in the blood

Philip recalls, during winter as a boy, being towed along on a sled over freshly fallen snow by his grandfather’s blue V8 County Station Wagon, holding on for dear life to his dad. And being strapped into his parents’ red Series III with buckles so that he didn’t fall out of the seat. And cruising down the motorway in a V8 Discovery 1 (which is still in the family) and climbing the sand dunes at Winterton Beach in Norfolk. With memories like that, and countless more, it’s a surprise to Philip that it took him this long to rediscover a cherished part of his childhood and buy a Land Rover.

Shiva’s reasoning for purchasing a Defender 110 is much more practical and a lot less sentimental; as serial over-packers, the loadspace is big enough to make you want to weep with joy.

 

Wallie finally arrives in stunning Iceland

After nine months of waiting and careful preparation, our adventure finally arrived. Wallie had been shipped out some weeks before, so all we needed to do was fly to Reykjavík to meet Paul who would be personally guiding us and a small group through Iceland.

The first few days went by in something of a whirlwind, as we gradually left Reykjavík (and civilisation) behind. Paul took us past well-known sites along the way, such as Geysir (which fires scalding hot water high up into the air every ten minutes) and countless breathtaking waterfalls and gorges.

Lost in wild volcanic wonder

​​​​​​Then the remoteness starts to hit you, with fewer folks passing by until, eventually, they stop passing altogether. It’s at that point you discover something truly rare in today’s world: wilderness. Our first night of wild camping was at a site near Stórisandur, on the western side of Iceland. It’s a mossy green, yet barren landscape without a tree in sight. A few grouse hid in some of the ground cover, reminding us of a Nordic version of the Yorkshire Moors. When we awoke early in the morning for coffee, Wallie and our tent stood proud in the crisp sunlight against a magnificent glacial silhouette glistening in the background. All of our fears about the trip melted away: this is what we came for.

It took a few days to find our rhythm but soon enough we were operating like a (fairly) well-oiled machine. We knew that this trip would be intense, requiring us to set up camp each evening after a long day of driving only to pack it all away again in the morning. A key decision we made early on was to opt for a ground tent, giving us more room to deal with Kai and eliminate the risk of him falling off Wallie’s roof.

Before long, they had the tent set-up time down to 20 minutes

Pitching and disassembling the tent was not without its challenges: Kai loved hiding essential items, particularly tent pegs, and thought it was great fun to loosen the guy ropes. So, when setting up, we found it easier to take turns being on ‘Kai duty’. Our co-travellers also kindly offered to take him every now and then so that we could focus on making the tent comfortable for the night, cooking and performing basic checks on Wallie. Without really noticing it, in a few days we started to really relax and sink into the whole experience, perfecting our tent set-up time in 20 minutes.

Most of the roads we travelled are known as the ‘F roads’ – unpaved tracks which take you through some of the most extraordinary landscapes that you are likely to witness in your life. It’s important to note that you need to stick to the F-roads as venturing off-piste is forbidden in Iceland.

An overlanding experience to treasure forever

​​​​​​These routes are an entirely different beast to the greenlanes that we are used to back in the UK, ranging from simple gravel paths, corrugations and muddy lanes to sheets of snow and ice, vast volcanic lava fields, black sand crossings and deep-water fjords. One ‘road’ was even made up entirely of pumice stones. And, trust us, on more than one occasion, the tracks really did bring out the appropriateness of the ‘F’ in ‘F-roads’… thank goodness that our little one was asleep during some of these episodes.

Not quite a bucket and spade beach

Our trip included passing by the country’s three vast glaciers, the first being Langjökull. Nothing quite prepares you for the experience of driving right up to a glacier – from far away, it almost looks like low hanging cloud cover. As you approach, you notice various signs: ‘1895’, ‘1945’, ‘2000’ and so on: easy to dismiss at first as some local grid reference, until you suddenly realise that this is where the mighty, retreating glacier once stood, and the numbers refer to years. It takes a soberingly long time to get to 2023.

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Group travel means quicker tyre changes

​​​​​​As we continued on even deeper into the Icelandic highlands, we had to put a lot of faith in ourselves and Wallie. The tracks become ever more technical, with razor sharp rocks ready to pierce the tyres of the unwary. And we paid the price crossing the lava field of Askja on the central-Eastern side of Iceland (which, as a side note, must have been the inspiration for Tolkien’s Mordor). Not allowing the rear left tyre to clear an embedded rock, we sliced the rubber right open – a silly driver error after a long day of driving. The benefit of group travel though is that we were underway again in no time thanks to our helpful companions.

Thanks to Kai, this wouldn’t be our only ‘blowout’ of the trip. On more than one occasion, we were forced to undertake an emergency nappy change there and then on the bonnet of Wallie. If ever there was an advertisement for Land Rover-based parenting, then this was it.

Lunar landscape

After about a week, we started to lose all awareness of time and space, helped by the 24 hours of daylight that persists during the summer months in Iceland. We spent much of the latter part of the trip exploring the glorious tracks along the western side of Iceland’s (and indeed Europe’s) largest glacier, Vatnajökull. The shortest way to explain what we saw here is: watch the film The Martian. Black volcanic lava fields morph into blood-red shingle and again into wide open, sand-kissed valleys. One day involved a hard-going, undulating rock climb straight up to the crater of an ancient erupted volcano – it was simultaneously awe-inspiring and terrifying. With this ever-changing terrain, it really is no surprise that NASA sent folk to train in Iceland before the moon landing in 1969.

There was many a fjord crossing to wet Wallie’s wheels

Of course, no driving story in Iceland is complete without talking about water; there are many fjord crossings to contend with. A diesel engine, raised air intake and some common sense will help see you right, but it’s easy to get complacent and the real danger comes from what you cannot see underneath the surface. Wading through one crossing, we managed to bring Wallie into contact with a number of awkward obstacles below the waterline. Crashing over those was like putting a two-tonne machine on a relentless hydraulic trampoline, the casualty of which was our low hanging tow bar which ended up bent right into the rear crossmember. Nevertheless, Wallie just kept going and the cost of repair back at home was miniscule in the grand scheme of things – a testament to the toughness of a Defender compared with more modern, plastic-bumpered 4x4s.

We’re not sure who loved the trip more – Kai or his parents!

Wallie was our home for those long driving days. Both a blessing and a curse as we found out: Kai loved being thrown about and travelling in the Defender, but he also had a desperate need to press every single button and pull every lever. Our CB radio was never on the same channel for longer than 10 minutes…

However, we wouldn’t have booked this trip if it was only about driving and surviving. Amazing times were also had outside of Wallie. Two nights were spent exploring and whale watching in the fishing village of Húsavík, made famous recently by the hilarious film Eurovision: The Story of Fire Saga. In Grettislaug (a semi-wild campsite in the north of Iceland), we put Kai to bed early to spend the evening bathing in a geothermal pool, glass of champagne at the ready and a stunning sea view to boot.

Descending into a lava cave: Philip got a workout haulingyoung Kai around

​​​​​​One memory that will stay with us forever could easily have ended in disaster – Paul led our group on a hiking trip into one of the magnificent lava tubes, which form following a volcanic eruption. No Icelandic health and safety authority suggested that this might be a challenge for a parent carrying a rucksack and 22lb toddler strapped to their shoulders. Over an hour and a half later, Philip emerged victorious, having hauled himself and Kai over an army of slippery, jagged rocks in pitch black darkness, armed only with a puny head torch. Kai had fallen asleep as soon as we descended into the lava cave and awoke at the end feeling chatty refreshed – Philip, on the other hand, wasn’t too far shy of needing a defibrillator.

There is a tendency as parents to go with the safe options; the soft play centres, the kid’s clubs, the all-inclusive resorts, because why add more stress to an already stressful life with a toddler? But in doing something different, we experienced freedom for ourselves and learnt that our little one is far more adaptable than we give him credit for.

Kai doing a wellbeing check on his fellow travellers

It was heartwarming to see Kai thriving and enjoying life in Iceland – and, as parents, so were we. He developed in leaps and bounds seemingly overnight, making real steps forward in his communication and social skills. At the campsites, Kai was able to roam free and explore to his heart’s content and, apart from a few sites next to rivers or lakes, we were able to relax knowing that he could do so in relative safety, with a whole group of us happily keeping an eye on him. It helped of course that no two landscapes were the same, meaning that one day he’d be crawling over lava rocks and sand while the very next he’d be jumping into puddles, crossing his own mini fjords.

The trip was a chance for us to reflect on who we want to be as parents and the types of experiences we want to make sure Kai has as he grows up (which will obviously include plenty of Land Rovers…). Whilst this was our first proper family overlanding experience, we hope that it will not be our last; we are planning now to take Wallie and Kai on the ferry to Northern Spain in May.

A huge thanks goes to Paul and Charlie Blackburn at OneLife Adventure for their support throughout the entire trip and to our fellow travellers for politely pretending that Kai did not wake them up each morning at 6.00am. Also, thanks to John at Green Lane Engineering in Surrey, whose decades of experience helped make sure that Wallie was fit as a fiddle for Iceland. Finally, Philip’s Dad (Derek) needs a special mention for the countless unpaid man hours he put in helping to get everything ready – until now, an unsung hero.

You can see more pics of our trip on our Instagram page: @roving_phiva

 

The Povey’s top tips for family travel

Organisation is key to family camping

​​​​​​An intensive trip like this with a little one requires more preparation and organisation, so leave plenty of time to do that and eliminate ‘unknowns’ before heading out. That includes a thorough service of the vehicle and at least one practice run with every item of gear you need for the trip, including how you intend to pack and repack it into
your Landy.
• Buy a tent that goes up and comes down fast – quality tents that do this are not cheap, but if it’s raining when you get to camp, it will save you getting wet and, potentially, from a much more expensive divorce.
• Invest in a proper air mattress: There is nothing worse than waking up after a not-particularly sound sleep on the hard ground, as we did on more than one occasion.
• Under-pack clothes for yourselves. Over-pack clothes for kids: if you think they get filthy at home, wait until you take one overlanding.
• Embrace the chaos Throw your little one’s usual routine out of the window – or at the very least, just relax it a little bit as timings cannot be predicted.
• Start small If, like us before this trip, you have never really camped with a toddler before, test your equipment and yourselves with a small weekend trip away – it’ll give you an idea of what you’re getting into, and even a short trip will highlight areas to concentrate on to make
life simpler.
• Whilst wild camping certainly has its charms, make your life easier occasionally and give yourself a break. If there’s a shelter or lodge available near the campsite for a small cost, take it.

 

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